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Review: Denon PMA-900HNE – All-rounder with a lot of drive

Review: Denon PMA-900HNE is a device that can really be called an all-rounder thanks to built-in streaming, a solid phono input and functions for TV sound.
5/5 - (1 vote)

The new Denon PMA-900HNE is the first amplifier from the Japanese brand to combine the familiar Denon amplification with built-in streaming. So you don’t really need anything extra. Yet you can optionally expand this all-rounder with the brand new DCD-900NE CD player.

Denon has always been a brand that laid out a strong proposition in the hi-fi middle class. If you are looking for affordable ‘real’ hi-fi with enough talent to also drive larger speakers, you will always find something with them. With a price tag of 999 euros, the PMA-900HNE is once again located in that popular part of the middle segment. Business as usual, then? Not quite, because this device is much more complete than previous PMA devices. For the first time, it features the HEOS platform, the streaming solution that Denon (and sister brand Marantz) have developed in-house. In addition to your own app, you can also stream via AirPlay 2 or Bluetooth. A TV can be connected via an optical input with an autosense function, plus there is a phono input for a record player. The PMA-900HNE is therefore aimed at the music lover who does have a preference for a classic amplifier, but who also does not want to miss anything. Incidentally, it is striking that Denon builds streaming into this device, but the more expensive PMA-1700NE has to do without. At a higher level, streaming is best in a separate device, we are told.

The DCD-900NE CD Player is an optional addition to the PMA-900HNE or any other brand amplifier. This 499 euro CD player does exactly what it promises: play discs. Although it also appears to have a USB port to play files from a stick. The essence, however, remains the spinning of silver discs that nobody wanted yesterday, but which are suddenly hip today.

Fashion model PMA-900HNE
What Stereo amplifier with streaming
Inputs 5 x analog cinch, phono-in (MM/MC), 3 x optical, coaxial, USB class A
Streaming Bluetooth, HEOS, Spotify Connect, AirPlay 2
outputs Pre-out, pre-out subwoofer, trigger
Extras IR learning function, 2 x speaker pairs
Dimensions 43.4 x 13.1 x 32cm
Weight 8.3kg
Recommended retail price 999 euros
Fashion model DCD-900NE
What CD player
Is reading music CDs, data CDs (MP3/WMA), USB storage 
Music formats MP3/WMA/WAV/AAC/FLAC/ALAC/AIFF/DSD
outputs analog cinch pair, optical, coaxial
Dimensions 43.4 x 10.7 x 32cm
Weight 4.9kg
Recommended retail price 499 euros

A real Denon

You can immediately see from the appearance of the PMA-900HNE that this is a Denon. Style elements such as the large central volume knob and the large knob for selecting inputs are very familiar. Turning those knobs shows that they have quite a bit of mass and appear solid. It is not proof that something will sound better, but it does give a positive feeling in terms of build quality. Adjustable bass and treble are equally typical of Denon, as is the Source Direct button to bypass them. We also recognize the brushed front panel from reviews of previous Denon amplifiers. And you can always expect the choice between black or silver with the brand. So you can safely say that it is a very traditional device, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The design language that Denon uses is quite timeless.

What distinguishes this device from its predecessor, the PMA-800NE, is the presence of a small monochrome OLED screen. Something like that was already there on higher PMA models, to show which input was selected. With the PMA-900HNE, the screen can also show some extra information, including with regard to streaming. But it’s not really crucial. It’s not like seeing the name of an artist you’re streaming here.

Streaming is the one thing that comes across as the big addition to the PMA-900HNE. That’s right, because it means that after connecting two speakers, you can immediately listen to music. But also the phono input that is MM ready for turntables with an MC cartridge is also exceptional at this price point. As far as we are concerned, it makes sense that there is MC support on this amplifier. One of Denon’s feats of arms is simply the DL-103, one of the most popular cartridges ever made for decades now. And that’s just a magnetic coil type.

TV is also possible

The paradox with all-in-one amps like this is that manufacturers still provide many inputs. The back of the PMA-900HNE is therefore much busier than that sleek front. An advantage of the wide range of inputs is that you can use the Denon in almost any scenario. Including as an upgrade for your TV sound. The PMA-900HNE is admittedly not equipped with an HDMI-ARC port, something that the more expensive Model 40n from stable mate Marantz shows off. A cost issue, we hear from the designers. HDMI would easily increase the price tag by 300 euros. So you can connect to a television with an optical cable. An autoplay function that automatically switches the amplifier on or switches to the correct input makes use with a TV set more comfortable. The big disadvantage of an optical connection to a television is that you cannot control the volume with the TV cabinet. But Denon has cleverly absorbed that by giving the amplifier an IR learning function. We taught the PMA-900HNE to recognize the volume buttons of the remote of our Sony TV so that we could just use the TV box while watching TV. Smart.

With these functions and in combination with the right speakers, the PMA-900HNE proves to be an interesting option for TV sound. Place a pair of speakers on either side of your TV screen and you get an experience that many soundbars can’t match.

In addition to the optical input labeled ‘TV’, there are two other optical connections, a coaxial input and a USB that you can use to play music files. Three analog cinch pairs plus a phono inputs are there for your analog sources. On the output side, we are especially happy to see a sub out. Then choose a sub that is easy to set up, because there are no controls on the amplifier to integrate a subwoofer.

HEOS and more

The HEOS platform has been around for many years and is present on many Denon and Marantz devices. You can find it, for example, on the Denon Home speakers with which the brand wants to compete with Sonos. Because it is a true multi-room platform, you can combine the PMA-900HNE with – for example – a Denon Home speaker or two. Although the platform does not offer a huge list in terms of number of supported streaming services, HEOS does have a lot of flexibility in this area. For example, you can wirelessly play a record player connected to the PMA-900HNE on Denon Home speakers in the kitchen or a soundbar from the brand in the living room. In the HEOS app itself, you will find Tidal, Soundcloud, Napster and Deezer in addition to internet radio. Playing your own files is also possible, with the support for hi-res (PCM up to 192/24 and DSD128) standing out. The HEOS app also works as a remote. You can also switch to one of the physical inputs.

Configuring via the HEOS app is quite easy, whether you connect the amplifier with an Ethernet cable or go through the trouble of screwing the two WiFi antennas onto the amplifier. The app itself is very sleek and simple. Easy to use too, although we think the presentation of playlists and albums could have been a lot sexier.

It is important to note that the HEOS module in the PMA-900HNE adds additional streaming options. If you prefer to ignore the HEOS app, you can choose to stream via AirPlay 2 or Bluetooth. The Denon amplifier also automatically appears as a speaker in the Spotify app. So you have some more options than what can be found in the HEOS app. Those who are a bit handy even create additional ones. For example, the PMA-900HNE is DLNA/UPnP compatible . This not only allows you to easily play your hi-res files, but you can also play Qobuz via a DLNA app. We do that ourselves with BubbleUPnP or Mconnect.

Proven technology

You shouldn’t expect a mid-range like the PMA-900HNE to be built in the same way as the battleship that is the top-of-the-line A110. However, it is also not a budget device. The amplifier is relatively heavy, which is partly due to the metal housing that is somewhat thicker. Interventions, such as a heavy metal base for the transformer and two large cooling fins at the output stage, also add some extra grams. In addition, Denon has internally shielded the digital HEOS module with a metal cage. This is important to keep the analog amplification section free from interference from those high-frequency digital parts. The amplifier itself is class AB technology that Denon has had for some time.

Whether you’re streaming or supplying music via a digital input, it is converted to an analog signal in the Denon by a DAC hatch based on the ESS ES9018K2M. This gives the PMA900HNE the ability to play just about any hi-res material; hi-res files in a higher quality than 384 kHz / 32-bit or DSD128 you will not soon meet.

Denon PMA-900HNE

No expensive CD player

There may suddenly be a kind of CD revival going on, but you really don’t have a lot of choice if you are looking for an affordable CD player. In itself it is good that Denon is launching the DCD-900NE, incidentally at the same time as the more expensive Marantz CD60 that we discuss elsewhere. Don’t expect a device here that can play exotic things like SACDs, the emphasis is on music CDs as you can find now for a few euros. Given that such a disc offers lossless audio, that’s not bad. Denon takes things up a notch by equipping the DCD-900NE with its Advanced AL32 Processing Plus technology which essentially upsamples the 44.1 kHz/16-bit of the CD to 768 kHz/32-bit.

The player is equipped with a USB port on the front through which you can play music files. In combination with the PMA-900HNE this may be unnecessary, but this CD player may be married to another amplifier that does not have streaming ingrained. Otherwise, this Denon player has few extras or features. There is Pure Direct with two modes. In the first position the screen is switched off, in the second position the screen and the digital outputs are switched off. The idea is that disabling these parts can improve the rendering just a little bit. In our test setup, we didn’t find that really noticeable. That is more the case, by the way, if you enable Source Direct on the PMA-900HNE. The tone controls are then bypassed.

Powerful enough

With its 2 x 50 Watts (8 Ohms), the PMA-900NHE does have some power on board. The pair of DALI Rubicon 2 speakers that we set up can handle the Denon without any problems. You don’t need much more to listen to music, other than a record player. We connect an X1, a nice turntable from Pro-ject with an MM PickIt-Pro cartridge. We connect the DCD-900NE with both cinch cables and an optical cable. This way we can compare the internal DAC of the CD player with that in the PMA-900HNE. We do this with Nick Cave’s ‘Boatman’s Call’ and the second Beethoven Transformed CD of ‘Boxwood & Brass’, a disc that we often pick up because of the interesting interpretations and fine playing of the British brass and woodwind players. We don’t notice any major differences, although we think the option ‘connect digitally and use the DAC of the PMA-900HNE’ sounds a bit sharper.

Soul and blues always meet in a catchy way when Benjamin Booker picks up his guitar. ‘Witness’ from 2017 sometimes mixes in some southern gospel, including on the title track on which you hear soul legend Mavis Staples join the guitar virtuoso. The Denon amp delivers these tracks in a big way, with a brisk and well-defined bass that provides a solid foundation for Booker’s husky vocals and distorted guitar playing. We are streaming this album via BubbleUPnP from Qobuz (CD quality), and are quite happy. There’s a nice, broad performance, so that in ‘Truth is Heavy’ the muffled guitar notes sound far to the right and backing vocals and guitars with a lot of distortion to the right – and Booker with his husky voice is right in front of us. In combination with the DALIs, which radiate broadly, we receive music in a nice way. We don’t necessarily have to sit in that narrow sweet spot to get a nice stereo experience.

‘Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes’ may not contain the best performances of all Fitzgerald classics, but it was recorded in such a way that you really feel like you are in a nightclub in the year 1962 (but it was recorded in the large Sportpalast) . The Denon perfectly conveys that warm atmosphere, thanks in part to the fuller sound and good timing. That is where this Denon is strong, without claiming that everything reveals in a recording. We stream this atmospheric album from our NAS via HEOS. Hi-res 96 kHz / 24-bit in the ALAC format, which goes without the slightest hiccup. If you do indeed have your own music files in a high resolution, then the HEOS platform is well suited for that.

Thanks to the fourth season of Stranger Things on Netflix, there is again a lot of attention for Kate Bush, and more specifically for her eighties hit ‘Running Up That Hill’. That song is on Hounds of Love, an album that was skilfully remastered in 2018 – well worth listening to. It’s great to hear how current the music of the British musician has remained, and how the Denon amplifier with its spacious imaging makes those eighties songs such as ‘Big Sky’ much more three-dimensional than you would expect from music from this era. That remaster obviously has a lot to do with it, but the talents of this affordable amplifier help to put songs on a large soundstage with instruments widely placed. On the eclectic ‘Waking the Witch’, the Denon beautifully reveals the finer details and soft whispers at the start of the track. With a Denon we expect a nice rhythmic reproduction where drums really propel a song. If we play ‘The Wheel’ by British post-punks from IDLES or ‘Angel’ from Massive Attack from vinyl, the PMA-900HNE does indeed seem to carry the DNA of its ancestors. Fortunately, the phono input – only tested with an MM cartridge – does not seem to be a weaker point in the story, which is sometimes the case with affordable amplifiers.

Conclusion Denon PMA-900HNE

The Denon PMA-900HNE is a device that can really be called an all-rounder thanks to built-in streaming, a solid phono input and functions for TV sound. On the positive side, even with a multitude of options, there are no real weaknesses to this Denon. Yes, the HEOS experience could have been a little more slick, but that’s about it. The Denon PMA-900HNE is relatively powerful and produces an immersive sound that comes across quite detailed. The amplifier succeeds in giving music the necessary drive and speed. It’s a strong entry in this segment.

We can be brief about the DCD-900NE: it is a relatively basic CD player that nevertheless plays discs fine. The built-in DAC is solid, so you can already get a nice reproduction via the analog output. However, with the digital outputs you can also feed a better DAC, separately or in your integrated amplifier.

Pros of Denon PMA-900HNE

  • Connectivity
  • Built-in streaming via HEOS, AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth
  • Handy IR learning function for TV cabinet
  • Nice appearance
  • Fast and dynamic skill

Negatives of Denon PMA-900HNE

  • HEOS app deserves a makeover

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